80 Shades of Gray

Originally written for the SLC International Tattoo Convention 2020

When walking through the Salt Palace during an event like this year’s tattoo convention, it’s impossible not to notice the vibrance surrounding you. Tattoos, it seems, are everywhere. Waiters from high-end restaurants are getting neck pieces, a nurse is getting work done on her sleeve, a man in his 60s is getting his first tattoo, another layer of color is being applied to a full-body suit—even the kids are drawing on each other. 

Tattoos have become so ubiquitous that their rebellious symbolism has mostly been relegated to the past. For instance, face tattoos are so common that when you see somebody with one, you’re likely to admire the art, not wonder where their parole officer is. It’s hard to remember that everything was different not that long ago. If a shirt was unbuttoned in just the right place, accidentally exposing a flash of color to anyone paying attention, the person would be branded as an outsider from society. Parlors were illegal in most places, and getting a tattoo was a peculiar experience.

Good Time Charlie, a living legend known across the tattoo world, started working in this era, a time he refers to as, “The good old bad old days.”

“There was the pool hall, the liquor store, the burger bar, and the arcade,” he reminisced. “I just parked at the end of the parking lot there and always had people waiting. I could just start and stop whenever I wanted, go to the arcade, eat a burger or something, then go back and draw something else. They were always waiting, you know? I could tattoo as much as I wanted.” 

His stick and poke tattoos were popular in Planeview, Kansas, an unincorporated district outside of Wichita. It didn’t matter who they were, Charlie tattooed anyone and everyone. He gave them whatever they wanted without drawing any distinction, an approach that would later define his career.

“Everyone in town would bring people to me. They came from everywhere. I tattooed the ‘socias’— the upper class people from the east side, the real high rollers—and the happening guys as well, and the ‘continentals’ were the ones who were sort of in between. People came from all over town, even though I was in what was considered a low rent district. I tattooed all classes like that.”

Who would have guessed that a teenager tattooing out of an old Buick would someday change the world?


The Reno Convention in 1977 was a far-reaching moment in the history of tattooing. The first national convention that had taken place in Houston the year previously had been relatively poorly attended, but Reno brought out the heavy hitters. For the first time, tattooers from all over the country were purposefully congregating amongst each other.

“The socialization of tattooers really started with the conventions,” Charlie explained. “I worked with guys who wouldn’t walk across the street to talk to another tattooers. That was the mentality of the old timers. They were pretty much loners.” 

Different tattooers from all over the country put their work on display in Reno, but even in a setting where tattoos were everywhere, the approach Good Time Charlie’s had was striking. Nobody had seen single-needle, black and gray custom tattoos done in a professional setting, and people were astonished. In the span of a weekend, Charlie had turned the tattoo world on its head. That caught him off guard; as far as he was concerned, he was simply making everyday tattoos. 

“I didn’t know why (Ed) Hardy was even impressed by what I was doing,” Charlie said in a matter-of-fact way. “I was like, ‘Hell, I’m just putting on black tattoos and giving them what they want, you know?’”

East L.A. was a rough part of town when Charlie first started hanging around. He’d drive through the district every weekend, looking for the right place to open up a shop, and finally, after searching for a year, he found what he was looking for. Good Time Charlie’s was born in 1975, and after calling in a friend of his to come work with him, soon-to-be-legend Jack Rudy, doors were open for business.

The community had a large population of “prison graduates” who brought the D.I.Y. tattoos they’d received in the pen out onto the streets, a look characterized by thin lines, realism, and black & gray. Prison tattoo machines were improvised out of cassette players, guitar strings, pens, and whatever else that was available and could be discretely repurposed. The limitations of the machines helped create the style, and that style was growing in popularity.

Standard professional tattoo machines used multiple needles to make thick lines, but the style on the streets had its origin in a single needle. Charlie recognized this, and in an effort to mimic the method, he pulled out one needle further than the rest. This gave him the professional control to better create the detailed lines that are only possible with a single needle. 

“The single needle action wasn’t hard to solve at all. They just wanted that, and I thought, ‘Well, you know, that’s simple enough.’ Jack makes it sound like it was kind of a big deal…”

Chicano tattoo iconography often includes intricate lettering, and like Charlie, Jack Rudy was, “a natural born lettering fool.” The cultural influence coupled with their own personal predilections led the two of them to develop a specialization in turning letters into art. 

“You don’t just write letters, you draw them,” Charlie explained. “That’s what separates the sheep from the goats.”

“The foundation of California tattooing, I think, is lettering,” he added.  

Although the style of tattoos that were coming out of Good Time Charlie’s weren’t new, the shop brought something that had otherwise been lacking—legitimacy. It was a cross between a street shop and custom, where they’d give clients weren’t limited by the imagination of the tattooer. It’s hard to believe now, when virtually every shop does custom tattoos, but at the time this was groundbreaking.

“I never sat in judgment on what people wanted to wear on their body, I just gave them what they wanted,” Charlie said. “All these other places, if it wasn’t on the wall, they wouldn’t give it to you. I thought, but that’s what it’s all about, giving people what they want. I had always drawn designs directly on people, so I wanted to have a custom operation. So even though we did walk-ins, that changed tattooing completely, knowing you could get anything you wanted.”

Without realizing it, Charlie had established an entirely new branch of tattooing. 

“This one big guy a couple years ago at a convention, kind of swept me up in his arms and said, ‘Charlie, there’s two types of tattoos in this world, right? You got those colored traditional tattoos and you got black & gray.’ 

“I said, ‘Yeah?’ 

‘Half the world is doing that Charlie! Just think what you started man!’ ”